The Language of Loss in Lulu Wang’s ‘The Farewell’

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“THE Farewell” is a 2019 dramedy about a Chinese-American woman named Billi who travels to China, along with an assortment of other family members and relatives, to visit her grandmother, Nai Nai, who is unaware that she has a terminal illness with only a few months left to live. According to Chinese customs, the family must not tell Nai Nai that she is dying because the family must bear the burden of grief and death. Nai Nai is meant to remain ignorant about her situation until the time comes when she passes on from this world. Lying – or, rather, withholding the truth of the diagnosis from her grandmother, is something that Billi struggles against. She believes that Nai Nai deserves to know the truth, and this is the central conflict within the film – the protagonist’s inner struggle between doing what she believes is right and what everyone else believes to be right.

There are other conflicts too, such as verbal battles between Billi and other members of her family, and between Billi’s family who left China for America and the relatives who chose to remain. These themes all transmit the central theme of loss, evidenced not only through the predicted loss of the beloved Nai Nai, but also in the loss of Chinese traditions that are manifested mostly through the Americanised Billi, who, for example, can barely speak any of her native Mandarin, emphasising how she represents the loss of culture as much as the family-gathering is meant to highlight the loss of a loved one.

Lulu Wang, the writer and director, based the story on aspects of her own family, and this could be one of the reasons for the intimacy and naturalness that are conveyed onscreen whenever the actors get together. The wedding scene, the dinner scene, the memorial scene in the graveyard – all moments where Billi, her parents, Nai Nai, and her family, come together, seem like natural moments, rather than deliberately choreographed shots decided upon in a screenplay and then shaped by a director before the actors are put into position. It is as if the camera is simply documenting the dialogue and interactions of an actual Chinese family.

The screenplay is one of the strongest elements of the movie. The language is incisive, funny, witty, and loaded with undertones. Furthermore, the dialogue not only serves to entertain or to move the plot along, but it also enhances the relationship between the characters. For example, when Nai Nai complains about her grandson’s Japanese bride-to-be, Billi defends the girl, pointing out that the new addition to the family does not speak their language. This highlights Billi’s awareness of what it means to be an immigrant, while also underscoring her personality as generally kind and sensitive. Nai Nai’s retort, that, no, the bride-to-be is just stupid, showcases her sense of humour. Moreover, this conversation cements in our minds the fact that Billi and Nai Nai are extremely close – they banter like friends, they confide in each other, they laugh together, and they generally have a beautiful and intimate relationship as granddaughter and grandmother.

“The Farewell” is a showcase for some of the Asian talent that can be found in Hollywood. Awkwafina, who plays Billi, may be well-known for her comedic roles, and this is exactly why her performance in this film stands out as one of her finest. In this movie, she sheds her popular avatar and embodies the role of a thirty-year-old artist who is guilted into lying to the family member who matters to her the most. She carries this guilt around like it is a physical weight in the movie. The impending loss is expressed through her entire body, as she repeatedly tries and fails to hold her head high and smile and pretend to be happy when she cannot be. This physical expression communicates the loss more than anything the character says. Her performance in this film is fine work and I do hope that she gets nominated for next year’s Oscar for Best Actress. If she manages to land the nomination, she will be the first woman of Asian descent to do so in 84 years, since Merle Oberon in 1935’s “Dark Angel.”

Equally deserving of an Oscar nomination, but in the Best Supporting Actress category, is Zhao Shuzhen who plays Nai Nai. This performance is one that encapsulates everything it means to be a grandmother, which means that Nai Nai is someone that everyone in the audience will find relatable. She can be stern and upright, but for the most part, she is warm, comforting, funny, and the kind of woman who loves her family very deeply. Although Awkwafina has some scenes in the movie that makes the viewer teary-eyed, it is Zhao Shuzehn who ultimately breaks our hearts into little pieces at the end of the film. Her role reminds us of the mortality of our loved ones, but also of their resilience, their strength, the role that so many older people have played in securing us and shaping us into worthy individuals, and, of course, the pain of having to say goodbye.

I’m honestly hoping that both of the actresses, and the film, are rewarded well when the Oscars come around, especially because Asian representation is essential in Hollywood and the Oscars can give that a boost, but more so because “The Farewell” is a darn good film, with impeccable talent both behind and in front of the cameras.